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Innovation and Design in Tudor and Stuart Britain

John Styles marks the opening of the new British Galleries at the V&A with a look at influences and innovations during a dynamic period of design history.

In 1549, in his Discourse of the Common Weal of this Realm of England, the politician Sir Thomas Smith railed against the number of haberdashers’ shops that had recently appeared in London. His anger centred on the attractive imported goods they stocked in such profusion – ‘French or Milan caps, glasses, daggers, swords, girdles, and such things.’ Many of these goods were, Smith complained, mere fripperies, made from cheap materials – paper, pins, needles, knives, hats, caps, brooches, buttons, laces, gloves, tables, playing cards, puppets, hawks’ bells, earthen wares – yet in importing them, the kingdom wasted its resources. England was ‘overburdened with unnecessary forrayn wares’, things ‘that we might ether clene spare, or els make them within oure owne realme’.

The annoyance expressed by Sir Thomas Smith at the rising tide of foreign imports exposes an ambivalence in English attitudes to innovation in the Tudor period. On the one hand, it betrays a suspicion that many of the small, often decorated consumer goods that the country was importing in ever-increasing quantities were wasteful and unnecessary extravagances. On the other hand, it reveals dismay at England’s inability to make such goods and resentment at the lost opportunities their import represented for English workers. Disapproval of superfluous novelties was to persist throughout the rest of the Tudor and Stuart period, though it did little to prevent them being bought and enjoyed in ever-increasing quantities. By contrast, dismay at the country’s dependence on foreigners to supply those novelties became an important force propelling innovation in design and the decorative arts.

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